These days, Canadian mother of two Janis Ollson is known as the "miracle mom" after surviving an experimental surgery that literally cut her in two in order to remove cancerous bones from her midsection.
Suffering from a rare bone cancer known as chondrosarcoma, Ollson, then 31, was told by doctors in 2007 that her only chance for survival was to cut out the cancerous bone tissue in her pelvis, lower spine and left leg, a procedure that would literally leave her cut in half.
The surgery would sever even her good right leg from the top portion of her body and it was unknown whether surgeons could put her back together again.
"I was in complete shock" on hearing the news, Ollson told the Winnipeg Free Press. "I felt like I was going to throw up."
But hope came in the form of a call from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Although the procedure had never been performed on a live patient, surgeons there were willing to try an experimental "pogo stick" rebuild that would use bone from her amputated leg to reattach her right leg closer to the center, at her spine.
"The tumor removal left no bony continuity between her torso and her remaining leg," Dr. Michael Yaszemski, the Mayo Clinic surgeon who invented the procedure for Ollson, said . "The novel part of the operation was to restore that … continuity using bone from the leg that we had removed."
While others in her position might have chosen to allow the cancer to spread, living out the remainder of their lives with limbs intact, Ollson chose surgery.
"Once you have kids, that's not an option," Ollson, now 34, said.
So she put her hope in the experimental treatment and the doctors at the Mayo Clinic. The procedure required two surgeries, performed a week apart; one to remove the bone, the second to put her back together.
Pain in Pregnancy Reveals Deadly Cancer
The first warning sign for Ollson was severe back pain that came on during her first pregnancy that made it impossible for her to work by the end of her pregnancy. The pain lessened after her daughter was born but started up again years later when she became pregnant with her son.
Doctors found nothing wrong with her and although she was desperate for relief, there was nothing more that could be done, or so she was told.
"I went back home feeling very alone and misunderstood," she told the Winnipeg Free Press. "I didn't think people believed me. I knew it was a whole lot worse than anyone thought."
In February 2007, after months of suffering with no relief, Ollson had had enough. She had her husband, Daryl, take her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with pregnancy sciatica, a form of back pain caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Deciding to Operate
It wasn't until she saw a neurologist and received an MRI that doctors realized that she may have sarcoma, a cancer of the bone that is relatively rare for women her age.
Chondrosarcoma can often go undiagnosed for months or even years as pain can be the only symptom, said Dr. Timothy Rapp, chief of the division of orthopedic oncology at the NYU Langone Medical Center.
"The pain can be vague so the diagnosis can be difficult until the symptoms escalate," he said. "Patients will report pain that slowly progresses and sometimes notice a growing lump that may or may not be painful. Most commonly, it strikes in the pelvis, hip or shoulder areas."
Rapp did not treat Ollson, but notes that of the patients he has seen with chondrosarcoma, none has had such a large area affected by the cancer.
Once diagnosed, the only treatment is surgery, Mayo surgeon Yaszemski added, because there is no known radiation or chemotherapy treatment that is effective against it.
Miracle Mom, Three Years Later
Today, Ollson has survived and thrives, using a prosthetic pelvis and leg, wheelchairs, crutches, and sometimes crawling to get around. She's even back snowmobiling around her half-acre home in Balmoral, Manitoba.
The cancer could return but, for now, she is in remission and doing everything she can to live life to the fullest.
"There really isn't a whole lot that stops me," she told the Winnipeg Free Press.
Yaszemski said she has "recovered to the best extent possible, given the nature, location and size of the tumor that she had. She will need and receive follow-up for life" because the tumor could return.
Since her surgery, three other patients have received the "pogo stick" rebuild, according to the Winnipeg Free Press. Only one has survived.